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Jeff Vasilinda becomes the Vasilinda Family’s first published author!

Dems Call for Vaccine Investigation

March 4th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

The Governor is pushing back against a Miami Herald story detailing how his political action committee ‘Friends of Ron DeSantis’ received a quarter million dollar contribution a month after vaccines were made available to a wealthy community in the Keys.

Florida’s lone statewide elected Democrat wants the FBI to investigate.

In late January, the Ocean Reef Community in Key Largo was offered shots by Baptist Hospital.

A month later, Bruce Rauner, a former Illinois Governor and Ocean Reef resident sent the Governor’s Political action committee…a $250,000 check.

The Governor Thursday said his office had nothing to do with setting up the site.

“In the initial three or four weeks, as you remember, the hospitals were getting the lions share of the vaccine,” said DeSantis.

But he added he was glad the hospital stepped up.

“If you are 65 and up, I’m not worried about your income bracket. I’m worried about your age bracket,” said DeSantis.

Hours later, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried called on the FBI to investigate.

“If this isn’t public corruption, I don’t know what is. I know that we will get to the bottom of this. So, I am asking the FBI Public Corruption Unit to be investigating this,” said Fried.

We asked Fried if she had proof of a quid-pro-quo.

She instead offered this answer.

“The fact is this is time and time again. This isn’t just one example. That there has now been a pattern of these examples have been occurring since these vaccines started to roll out,” said Fried.

The Governor called the original Miami Herald story a train wreck.

“That article was just flat wrong. And I don’t know, do you even know if he has been vaccinated? Do you know? Okay so literally they are just trying to indulge in conspiracy theories,” said DeSantis.

Fried is the second Democrat, after Congressman Charlie Crist, to call for an investigation.

Late Thursday afternoon, a third Democrat, State Senate Democratic leader Gary Farmer, wrote prosecutors asking for an investigation.

Both Fried and Crist are considered likely candidates for the Democratic nomination for Governor in 2022.

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Legislation Would Educate Florida Students About the Pitfalls of Communism

March 4th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Dozens of survivors of communist regimes were at the State Capitol Thursday, supporting a bill that would bring stories like theirs into the classroom.

Supporters worry upcoming generations don’t understand the history of America’s founding principles and how they differ from communist ideology.

For many Floridians, Communism is thought of as a relic of the Cold War, but for dozens of survivors of Communist regimes like Maximo Alvarez who brought their stories to the State Capitol, it’s personal.

“We have lost our families, brothers, some of us friends, mom and dads,” said Alvarez, who escaped from Cuba at the age of 13.

He and the other survivors are backing a bill that would require US Government classes to include a comparative discussion of political ideologies, like Communism, that conflict with the nation’s founding principles.

It would also direct the Department of Education to curate an oral history collection from those who have seen both forms of government in practice.

“We need our children in Florida’s classrooms to realize that there are some places in the world where freedom is a luxury and liberty is just a dream,” said House Speaker Chris Sprowls, who is backing the legislation.

A survey by The Victims of Communism Foundation found one out of three millennials have a favorable view of communism.

“Clearly the text book isn’t enough. The instruction in the classroom isn’t enough. What our children need to understand what happens with victims of communism, what happened in the Holocaust, is to hear it from survivors. From people who were there in their own voice, from their own experience,” said Sprowls.

Alvarez worries without hearing it from those who lived through it, the same ideology that deprived his countrymen of their human rights and left others in graves, could take root here.

He hopes this legislation will help ensure that never happens.

“I have a thriving business, but if I give everything that I have today it wouldn’t be one percent of what I was given when I came to this country,” said Alvarez.

The bill sailed through its first committee with unanimous bi-partisan support.

A separate bill has been filed that would establish Victims of Communism Day as an official state holiday to commemorate the 100 million victims killed under communist regimes.

The holiday would be observed on November 7th, the anniversary of the first day of the Communist regime in Russia.

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Combating Public Disorder Act on Fast Track in House

March 3rd, 2021 by Jake Stofan

The contentious anti-rioting legislation supported by the Governor gets its second of three committee hearings in the House Wednesday.

Opponents argue the bill is an attack on First Amendment rights, but supporters assert it will protect law enforcement and prevent public disorder seen at the US Capitol and across the country last year.

There are two distinct camps on the controversial Combatting Public Disorder legislation.

Senate sponsor Danny Burgess signed on after seeing a business in his district burned down during the unrest over the summer.

“Martin Luther King stood for peaceful protest. Plain and simple. And that’s what we’re here to protect and preserve,” said Burgess.

On the other hand, social justice groups argue the bill seeks to silence their ability to protest.

“This is an anti-Black bill. This is an anti-brown bill,” said Rep. Michele Rayner.

Protestors at the Capitol argued the bill, which increases penalties for crimes committed during a riot, will lead to the arrest of peaceful protestors.

“We’re supposed to trust the police department to discern rioting from protesting, what we’re doing, right now. Do we trust the police right now?” Said Christina Kittle with the Jacksonville Community Action Committee.

The response from the crowd was a resounding ‘no’.

But House sponsor Juan Alphonso Fernandez-Barquin argues his bill will work to the benefit of those seeking to exercise their First Amendment right.

“If these agitators show up, it is in the best interest of the peaceful protesters to point who these individuals are out to the law enforcement and that law enforcement deals with them directly,” said Fernandez-Barquin.

There are also concerns with a provision that would allow those arrested during a riot to be held without bond until first appearance.

Fernandez-Barquin said the policy is in response to what he described as ‘fringe groups’ immediately bailing people out after they were arrested in cities like Portland and Seattle during riots in the cities.

He explained the intent is only to hold those arrested overnight.

“So that individual does not return back to the riot and keep participating in the riot,” said Fernandez-Barquin.

The legislation also would allow citizens to petition the Governor’s Office if their local government moves to decrease funding for law enforcement.

The local budget could then be altered by the State Administration Commission.

Opponents see the bill as a crack down on the racial justice movement spurred by the death of George Floyd, but the Governor standby his claim that the legislation is not about politics.

“The minute you start to turn violent or attack law enforcement, we are absolutely going to hold you accountable,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

The bill hasn’t moved in the Senate, but with the Governor’s backing, it won’t be stagnant for long.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

School to Police Records Pipeline Could End

March 3rd, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

A controversial three-year-old agreement that has Pasco County Schools sharing student data with the Sheriff’s Office could soon end under legislation moving in the State Capitol

A last minute amendment to a parents’ rights bill would require parents to give their permission before schools could share data with law enforcement.

The 2002 movie Minority Report portrayed futuristic police using predictive technology to stop crimes before they happen.

For three years, Pasco Schools have been providing the Pasco Sheriffs office with student data, then cross referenced for any law enforcement contact and possible follow up.

But that process could be severely curtailed under an amendment approved in the State Capitol.

“Parents should have to affirmatively consent to allowing the school district to release their child’s grades to local law enforcement,” said amendment sponsor Senator Jeff Brandes.

The amendment would require every school district, not just Pasco, to get permission from a parent before sharing a student’s information with police or anyone else.

Democratic Senator Tina Polsky voted for the amendment, but against the bill.

“Good amendment, and I voted for the amendment. Obviously, I knew the bill would pass but I am glad the amendment is there,” said Polsky.

Dennis Baxley, whose family has ties to law enforcement, said the amendment is about putting parents first.

“The school is not the parent. The parents, these families these children belong to these families. They don’t belong to the state,” said Baxley.

“I’m open to having a conversation,” said Representative Erin Grall, who is sponsoring the House version of the Parents’ Bill of Rights.

The House version doesn’t have the data sharing amendment yet.

“And I do think whenever a child’s records are accessed by anyone, we do need to be involving parents,” said Grall.

If approved, the Parents’ Rights legislation would take effect July 1st, just in time for the fall semester.

The Pasco School Superintendent did not return our call.

We did speak to the Pasco County Sheriffs Office, which said it has not planed to work against the legislation.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

MCORES Changes Approved By First Senate Committee

March 3rd, 2021 by Jake Stofan

The state’s plan for three major road projects would undergo major changes under legislation approved by its first Senate Committee Wednesday morning.

The bill would remove the MCORES project from state statute and redirect $123 million into the state transportation trust fund for use on more urgent needs.

Under the new plan, DOT would be instructed to identify ways to use existing roadways to improve traffic on I-75 and US-19.

Bill sponsor Gayle Harrell said the new plan will save the state money in a tight budget year.

“Anticipating a shortfall of $2 billion this year, we really have to address how we’re spending our money carefully and this really takes somewhat of a different tactic. It’s prioritizing where the congestion is, the problems that we have and really allowing us to take a second look at things,” said Senator Harrell.

Environmental groups expressed concerns about the new proposal, though few have taken a hardline stance on the bill this early in the process.

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State of the State: Growth, Prosperity, Freedom

March 2nd, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

For the 123rd time since statehood, Florida lawmakers opened their annual session Tuesday, in what the Senate President called an opening like no other.

For the Governor, his State of the State address was mostly a victory lap.

Florida lawmakers have kept a hands off approach since the pandemic and for 28 and a half minutes, the Governor told them it worked on everything from keeping schools open to allowing people to work.

“We are one of only a handful of states in which a parent has the right to send their child to school in person,” said Governor Ron DeSantis. “And our citizens are employed at higher rates than those in the nation as a whole.”

He also attributed the openness to the creation of an influx of new businesses.

“We are one of the top destinations for business relocation,” said DeSantis.

Looking ahead, the Governor again called for record school funding.

“And I just want to make it very clear. I reject and reductions in funding for K-12 education,” said DeSantis.

He also wants a billion over four years to fight climate change.

“It will help our communities adapt to the threats posed by flooding from intensified storms and sea level rise,” said DeSantis.

Legislative leaders said if there’s any federal stimulus money coming, it will be for one time expenses.

“Our priorities should be to reinvigorate this economy, we can do that with one time investments in our shovel ready road projects,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson.

As a rebuke to local governments who fought against not requiring masks, the Governor is proposing limiting local emergency powers.

Democrats argue the Governor isn’t looking out for average Floridians, only his political career.

“He’s no longer focusing on the state of Florida, but he’s focusing on his popularity as he’s getting ready for a Presidential run,” said Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried.

As the only statewide elected Democrat, Fried is considered a top challenger to the Governor in 2022.

Asked Tuesday, she said she has not announced for Governor, “yet”.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Florida Democrats Push Back on State of the State Address

March 2nd, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Each year following the Governor’s State of the State address, the party in the minority responds with a counter vision of where they see the state headed.

This year some of the Governor’s top priorities are the top points of opposition from the Democratic Party.

While the Governor painted a rosy picture of Florida besting other states in pandemic response during his State of the State address, Florida Democrats immediately responded with a different take.

“We’ve lost loved ones, jobs and income,” said Rep. Andrew Learned. “Instead of helping hardworking Floridians with common sense solutions, we heard an agenda that was driven by pettiness, imaginary threats and settling partisan political scores. This is a time for leadership, a plan to get COVID-19 under control, to deliver relief for Florida’s families and build back our economy better.”

In a pre-recorded video, Democrats and progressive activists delivered what they call the ‘People’s Response’.

In it, they demanded changes to the state’s unemployment system.

“As hundreds and thousands of Floridians were personally devastated with the loss of their job at no fault of their own, with bills bearing down on them, they were left to deal with a horribly broken unemployment system,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani.

In another video, Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer took aim directly at the Governor’s top agenda items.

“Our Republican Governor has made the dissolution of your First Amendment rights his top priority and protecting violence inciting hate speech on the internet as his second,” said Farmer.

The lone statewide elected Democrat, Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, suggested the Governor’s priorities are aimed at delivering red meat to his base rather than addressing the everyday needs of Floridians.

“We should not be dividing our state and dividing our country. If we work on issues that are impacting everybody across the board, that’s when we make progress,” said Fried.

Democrats’ key agenda items this year include expanding Medicaid, increasing unemployment benefits, police reform and expanding access to the ballot.

While Democrats are voicing their objections, they don’t have the votes to stop anything the Governor and Republican-led legislature want to do.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Protestors Take to State Capitol In Opposition of Anti-Rioting Legislation

March 2nd, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

About a hundred people arrived at the State Capitol Tuesday afternoon to make known their displeasure over proposed anti-rioting legislation.

The measure would increase penalties for non peaceful protests when police are attacked, temporarily deny bail, and punish cities that cut law enforcement funding.

Newly elected St. Petersburg State Representative Michele Rayner called the legislation discriminatory.

“You can’t really lobby the way that you want to, but you’re driving from Sarasota, Miami, Jacksonville, Orlando. All of these places. You are doing the work. You are making your voice heard.And I love that you are protesting an anti protesting bill,” said Rayner.

The legislation is a top priority of the Governor and GOP leaders.

It has a hearing in its second of three committees late Wednesday afternoon.

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Florida Lawmakers Take Aim at China

March 1st, 2021 by Jake Stofan

The Governor and legislative leaders are adding China to the growing list of targets for the 2021 Legislative Session beginning Tuesday.

Newly filed bills seek to limit intellectual property theft by the Communist regime and crack down on Chinese influence in colleges and universities.

“The growing presence of the Chinese Communist Party influence in domestic and international affairs is one of the most pervasive threats to American security and prosperity,” said Governor Ron DeSantis in a press conference Monday.

The Governor and House Speaker are backing two proposals.

The first seeks to limit Chinese influence in academia by requiring transparency for donations from foreign governments over $50,000 and creating penalties for institutions that don’t comply.

“Florida is known for our sunshine and transparency. No longer will foreign interests be able to hide payments through subsidiaries and front companies,” said House Speaker Chris Sprowls.

The legislation comes after indictments of professors at UF and UCF alleged to have ties to the Chinese communist party.

“I too believe we are just scratching the surface of what is out there. Florida is taking bold steps to protect our institutions from countries that do us harm,” said Rep Erin Grall, who is sponsoring the legislation in the House.

A second bill would increase penalties for cooperate espionage, raising theft of trade secrets to a second degree felony and trafficking trade secrets to a first degree felony.

“The theft of trade secrets and intellectual property must stop and these laws will place Florida in a position to end it,” said Senate sponsor Jennifer Bradley.

The Governor and lawmakers left without taking questions, but the legislation isn’t unexpected.

The Governor has promised retribution against the Chinese Government through the pandemic.

Also filed this year is legislation blaming China for the economic meltdown caused by COVID.

It would prevent state and local governments from purchasing products wholly made in China or products assembled outside the US containing less than 25 percent US-made parts.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

A Session Unlike Any Before

March 1st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida lawmakers begin their annual 60-day session Tuesday.

It is the 123rd session since statehood, but it will be different than any ever held before, as the Capitol remains closed to most visitors over COVID concerns.

The flowers are freshly planted and the grounds newly pressure washed, but little else will be the same in the first full legislative session of the pandemic.

In years past, sessions would bring a thousand or more people a day to the Capitol, but this year, the building remains closed to most of the public.

Senate Committee rooms remain off limits.

In-person testimony is now remote via video from a mile away, but you still have to be in the capital city.

Even long-time lobbyists find it unnerving.

“It’s surreal. I don’t even feel like I am talking to anyone,” said insurance lobbyist Mark DeLegal.

The House is allowing a limited number of people on a first come basis to testify before committees.

Opening day Tuesday will be off limits to all visitors.

A coalition of groups is calling on both chambers to allow live remote testimony from anyone anywhere in Florida.

“Public testimony is not working,” said Carol Boyd with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“The idea that you would open it up to any person that wanted to testimony anywhere in the world is pretty ridiculous,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson.

Florida’s Constitution doesn’t allow lawmakers to meet virtually, but there will be an effort to change that this year.

Legislators, staff and reporters are tested each week before being allowed inside the Capitol.

With all the precautions, the 2021 session will be different from the past; except fo the politics that will permeate every discussion.

Two pandemic related committees are examining how to keep the state safe and open if a future pandemic were to hit.

A Senate Committee voted Monday to put a time limit on how long a Governor’s executive order can remain in place.

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DEO Testifies on Unemployment

March 1st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

For the first time since the pandemic, the Director of Department of Economic Opportunity was in a legislative hot seat answering questions about the state’s unemployment system Monday.

A 104-page report released Friday night calls for spending more than $32 million on system upgrades and the hiring of 435 people.

Director Dane Eagle said the current system was never prepared to handle the pandemic.

“You can see the great recession there about the middle of the graph, and it pales in comparison to the amount of claims we have dealt with this past year. The good news is that you can see that spike was very sharp. It went up quickly, and it’s come down very quickly as well. Now, on a nation level, those claims we are experiencing on a weekly level are close to that great recession level, but we continue to see them coming down,” said Eagle.

A bill filed for the 2021 session would raise weekly unemployment payments from $275 to $375.

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Legislation Would Ban ‘Disability Abortions’

February 26th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

New legislation filed at the State Capitol would ban so-called ‘disability abortions’, making it illegal to terminate a pregnancy because a child is likely to be born mentally or physically impaired.

In the US, 65 percent of fetuses diagnosed with down syndrome are terminated.

In countries like Iceland and Denmark it’s nearly 100 percent.

For Ryan Sprague, the issue is personal.

“My oldest son who just recently turned 17, has cerebral palsy,” said Sprague.

Sprague runs a pregnancy information and help center in the state’s capital.

He hopes the legislation sparks a conversation.

“I don’t think it says a good thing for our society if we’re choosing who gets to live and who doesn’t get to live based on a quality of life issue that we determine is unworthy of life,” said Sprague.

The legislation would not make a mother criminally liable for having a disability abortion, but the physician would face a third degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Opponents like Laura Goodhue with Planned Parenthood argue it is blatantly unconstitutional.

“Families that are facing these very deeply personal decisions don’t want the State of Florida or politicians interfering. And it should really be decisions that are made between doctors and pregnant people themselves,” said Goodhue.

Pro-choice advocates call the legislation yet another attempt to bring a case before the US Supreme Court and overturn Roe V. Wade.

“Roe V. Wade has been the law of the land for 48 years, but opponents to safe and legal abortion are not lacking in Florida,” said Goodhue.

Even Sprague doubts the legislation would hold up in court, but he believes the fact it was filed at all sends a strong message.

“I think it is good for us to protect those who are in most need of protection,” said Sprague.

Last year the disability abortion legislation didn’t get a hearing.

It’s yet to be seen if the Legislature has a greater appetite to take on such a controversial topic this year.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Bipartisan Florida Coalition Pushes for State and Federal Immigration Reform

February 25th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

A coalition of business groups, activists and former and current elected Florida officials are pushing state and federal lawmakers to find common ground on immigration reform.

They hope some change may even come out of the state legislative session that begins next week.

Bipartisan solutions were the focus of the virtual summit on immigration.

“More than 75 percent of Americans approve of immigration reform,” said Immigration Partnership and Coalition Fund Chairman Mike Fernandez.

Florida’s Democratic Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried is pushing for a more compassionate way of dealing with those who arrive in the country.

“What we need are common sense immigration solutions. What we don’t need are detention centers holding immigrant children in Homestead or anywhere else,” said Fried.

One in five Floridians weren’t born in the United States, and immigrants make up more than a fourth of the state’s workforce.

Former Republican Governor Jeb Bush believes there’s common ground to be found in helping those who are already here.

“That if you came here many years ago and you are American in every way and you’re making a contribution to our great country, that you ought to be able to get citizenship and do that in a very rapid way,” said Bush.

Immigration policy is largely in the hands of the federal government, but some reforms have been made at the state level in the past.

Former Republican House Speaker Will Weatherford went to battle with his own party and successfully pushed for in-state tuition rates for any resident, regardless of their immigration status.

“Facing your own party and convincing them to challenge their own fears is the hardest part of this process, but it can be done,” said Weatherford.

Despite the hopes of the bipartisan coalition, only three bills dealing with immigration have been filed for the 2021 session.

Of the bills filed, one would revoke in-state tuition rates for non-US citizens.

Another would tighten requirements for businesses to check the immigration status of potential new hires.

The third would make all Floridian students eligible for state financial aid, regardless of their immigration status.

None have yet been scheduled for a hearing.

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Effort to Ban Confederate Holidays Back Again

February 25th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida recognizes 18 holidays.

Not all of them are celebrated, or get you the day off.

They range from the usual holidays, to the birthdays of Susan B, Anthony and Martin Luther King.

Three celebrate the confederacy, but legislation has been filed to eliminate them.

Florida is one of five states that still recognizes General Robert E Lee’s birthday, Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ birthday, and Confederate Memorial Day.

State Senator Lauren Book is for the second time, filing legislation to strip the holidays from state statutes.

“With all of the hate and divisiveness we see today, it’s more important than ever to condemn racism,” said Book.

Confederate supporters came out in droves in 2018 when Book first filed the bill.

It passed just one of three committees and never came up again.

“I hear from across the state. People say they are infuriated and are going to want to go to Tallahassee,” said David McAllister with the Sons of the Confederacy.

As many as 15,000 from Florida served in the Confederate Army.

An estimated 4,000 died.

McAllister said one in six Floridians have an ancestor who fought in the civil war.

State Senator Dennis Baxley’s great, great, great grandfather fought for the confederacy.

“I always have a bit of pain in my heart when I realize people don’t want to respect each other’s history. The good, the bad, and the ugly,” said Baxley.

In addition to erasing the holidays from law books, the legislation also removes penalties for defacing the confederate flag.

“Why would we have particular protects for the Confederate flag? We shouldn’t stand for that in our state,” said Book.

Confederate supporters say its adding insult to injury.

“It’s so controversial, it’s going to take up a lot of time that could be put to better use,” said McAllister.

Because of COVID restrictions the number of those who want to speak for or against the legislation will be limited, but it is not likely to curb anyone’s enthusiasm.

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Activists Bash Florida Capitol COVID Restrictions

February 25th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Grassroots activists are crying foul over COVID restrictions at the State Capitol on the eve the annual Florida legislative session.

Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and others argue lawmakers aren’t doing enough to accommodate testimony from the public during the pandemic.

Florida Rising Senior Director of Advocacy & Programs Moné Holder said the limits are by design.

“Under the cover of COVID-19, this Legislature is restricting the public access to the legislative process, and that is indeed a problem. Hard working Floridians, taxpayers, they all have a right to be heard and be safe. They have a right to support and oppose legislation. They have a right to transparency and accountability and access to taxpayer-funded buildings,” said Holder.

The COVID policies for the session, which begins Tuesday, were developed in consultation with the University of South Florida.

Access by the public is restricted to testifying from a remote site near the Capitol, or limited in-person appearances.

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